Artist Spotlight: Lenox Hills talks relentless work ethic, creative influences and growing into their sound
Lenox Hills is the next rock group on your radar. The Chattanooga, TN, group has been playing in various projects since they were kids, but, over the last few years, they’ve picked a permanent name and a sound all their own. The quartet already has a couple of EPs, including their latest one with Names, and a handful of singles for new fans to dive into. Atlas spoke with singer Luke Mullin and drummer Kyle Swenson about everything from their plethora of musical influences to what’s coming next for this promising new project.
How did you all come together as a band and how did you go about finding your sound?
Kyle Swenson: We grew up in the same neighborhood. Me and him have been next door neighbors since we were like two. And we just made bands growing up- like a bunch of cover bands when we were really young. I think we had a My Chemical Romance phase for a little bit. But come around high school, we’re actually like, ‘hey, we want to actually be a band [and] should actually get some instruments and get serious about it’.
Luke Mullin: Keep in mind, we didn’t even know how to play when we were starting these bands when we were kids. We just said we were a band and we didn’t know anything. I remember playing a bass and turning it down all the way and just pretending to play, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.
KS: And then we needed a drummer so I just took it over and we taught our friend the bass so he’s our bassist.
LM: We kind of all came at it from different angles. I think when we started I was really big into Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley and all that kind of stuff, just singer-songwriter stuff. And Kyle was really big into Tame Paula and Nirvana and stuff like that. And my brother- he’s the lead guitarist- really dug Pixies and The Replacements. We all just had completely different views of what we wanted the band to be. I think we just, at a certain point, found this alternative rock middle ground.
It really took about a year to figure out what we wanted to do musically, but it was all just trial and error for a while. We were really bad even when we started the band- we didn’t even know how to play our instruments. I think I started learning guitar six months before we started the band. And even when we started, I could only play three chords. He (Swenson) was a terrible drummer. Now he’s one of the best drummers I know because he worked on it. The only one who really knew how to play was my brother. We just worked through the three of us and then Cameron came along a few months into it [and] we just kind of grew with each other. We spend every day together and I think when you’re just hanging out with each other, you kind of grow together personally and musically. Now we all listen to a lot of the same stuff and we draw our influence from there.
Who do you count among your influences and inspirations when you’re writing music?
KS: I’ve been in a really big King Gizzard phase at the moment, just for drum inspirations and how they don’t make sense in the songs but it’s incredible.
LM: I listen to a lot of The Districts and The Weeks. Twin Peaks is one. Those are three bands we all listen to that we really like. I think that’s kept us from being bubblegum pop because they kind of do things differently. And I think for us, we’re really big on keeping things simple. Listening to bands like this, you kind of come at it from a different angle. It’s been really nice to throw that in there with keeping it simple so that you can do it better [or] at least make it more interesting. Radiohead’s a really big one for us, Pixies, the Beatles.
A big band for me is this Australian band called Middle Kids. They’re really cool. We’re really big on Australian alternative rock and punk. Just mixing it in with the big bands and the small bands is cool…you see how songs are written from a bigger spectrum.
I feel like we have a little bit more of a southern twist, too, because we’re from Tennessee. He hates to say it but we all listened to country growing up- our parents would play it in the car and stuff. That stuff will always stick with you. I think it’s better to embrace it too. I think for a while, we tried to kind of push it away. Once we started embracing it, that’s when we started to find a really cool sound.
What was it like working with Samuel Dee of The Weeks in the studio and how did that experience help shape the EP?
KS: He came over and we had like five songs. But he came over and was supposed to stay a whole weekend and we cranked it out in one night and then hit the studio the next week.
LM: We basically just had two people who are way smarter than us guiding us. That’s the thing with Sam- he just knows his shit, stuff we didn’t even realize you could do. I think what I gained from it is that we learned a lot about songwriting that weekend that we’ve been using recently. If we hadn’t done that record with Sam, I don’t think we would be where we are right now, as writers or musicians, I think it definitely pushed the envelope forward because it was such a step up. They’re next level guys and we had to work up to that and live up to that with them. They kind of showed us how to maybe look better than you actually are or sound better than you are.
It was really cool writing songs with him and learning more about the whole process and things you can do that can make it easier. It was a lot of fun. Just a great learning experience and we got a good EP out of it. We’re really proud of it. I think it’s better because they were part of it for sure.
How would you say that your music has evolved from when you started writing to what it’s become now?
LM: We were terrible. I mean, like so bad.
KS: Just actually making sense lyrically too- like having an actual idea of what you want to talk about. Also the first groove we would come across, we’d make a song out of it. I think we just trial and errored over time and realized ‘wow, that was complete cheese’. Now Luke’s writing constantly. Also, our lead guitarist has been writing a lot lately.
LM: It’s definitely been trial and error. That’s the main thing because we didn’t know what we were doing. We would just play and if something sounded kind of cool, we’d roll with it. It took us learning not to play over each other. Lyrical storytelling has become more of a thing instead of just saying something that fits the melody. That’s one thing I think we had from the get-go; that is really what carried the band for a while. The only reason we were able to make it out of that awkward phase is because we were always really good melodically. I think that a big part of the song is having a really strong melody. We were good at hooks too, but we just weren’t good at building a song around that for a while.
I think our biggest issue now as writers isn’t as much like the stuff we come up with isn’t good or we don’t know how to form a song, but mainly just sometimes when we get stuck, we revert back to certain tricks we know will get us out of it instead of working through it and coming up with something great. Sometimes it’s cool to get weird. I think that’s more like [Kyle’s] style and my brother’s style, and I think that’s something we’ve been trying to do is definitely trying to get a little weird with this next record we’re working on.
What are you hoping that listeners take away from your music?
LM: I think it’s different lyrically and musically. Musically, we want it to be really fun and we want people to be able to have a good time dancing and enjoy it. I think musically it’s kind of about creating a good vibe. Lyrically, sometimes I like to kind of counteract that. Like, Most of the stuff I write when it comes to lyrics is more depressing than it is happy or uplifting. Sometimes it’s not super obvious, but on the EP, we have this song called “Let It Bang” and it just sounds like this really cool song. But lyrically, it’s talking about being in love with this girl and her just leaving you in the dust and having no idea what to do with yourself and still being hung up.
It’s something we’ve talked a lot about. We have a song on the album we’re working on now that’s something I’ve been dealing with, especially with coronavirus. Everyone’s kind of been faced with death and that’s something I’ve always been pretty scared of. So I wanted to write something that embraces the idea that we’re all gonna die someday. It’s better to embrace the fact and learn to live knowing that, because then you’ll probably live a more full life than you would if you just pushed it to the side and tried to ignore it. I think lyrically it’s definitely always trying to say something important while musically it’s trying to create a vibe that makes the listening easier.
How are you guys staying creative and productive during quarantine?
KS: I work as a waiter, so I’m still having to go out and be super cautious and it’s really frightening thinking about how many people actually come into the restaurant and all this stuff that I touch and then coming back here. It’s just so freaky because at our age, we don’t show symptoms or anything, really. How can you tell a college student to stay inside on a Saturday night when they feel fine? The paranoia is terrifying. But as far as writing, our emotions are definitely affected by this and definitely wanting to find some way to escape from them.
LM: Lyrically, I’ve definitely written a lot about stuff I would have never written about like racial conflict.
Everything I used to write about is pretty…I don’t want to say surface level, but it’s stuff I’ve personally experienced like relationships or anxiety, but I’ve never really gone political. It’s funny because when you write stuff like that, it almost scares you because you’re taking a stance to one side so the song I wrote was really supporting BLM and it was super anti-government. That’s a scary thought but sometimes you feel proud of it too, because you’re actually saying something that matters. It’s definitely been a new perspective. It’s been interesting to see the new things that have been coming out; it’s almost a subconscious thing.
I don’t want to say that coronavirus and quarantine have been nice but we were playing so much that the only thing we could do once we got into quarantine was write a record. We had a bunch of ideas so it’s been nice to have the time to work on them, but it’s also been really stressful being stuck at home and not playing, which is something we love to do just as much. We know everyone’s hurting so it’s not just us, and I think you just gotta take it one day at a time and keep doing what you can. That’s why we’ve been just writing a ton and trying to get better.
Is there anything else that you want people to know about you guys as people or as a band? Or is there anything that you wish you got to talk about more that you may not get asked?
LM: Kyle shaved his head so that’s interesting. But we’re growing [it] back!
KS: Oh man, that’s a great question. We’re all still in school- well two of us are and I’m about to go back in the fall.
If you want a good time, check out our music. If you want to dive a little deeper, read the lyrics.
LM: I think a cool thing about the band is we were all pretty serious athletes before we started the band. My brother and I were big wrestlers. I wrestled in college for a bit and then Kyle and Cam are pretty good soccer players. That was our lives before getting into music, so I think the way we approach music is almost a little bit of that. We don’t really mess around. I know for me, wrestling is a very grueling and painful sport. As bad as it sounds, I think we like to bring that into the band room sometimes too. I like the pressure of just making sure everything is as good as it can possibly be. We’re never really satisfied, and I think that’s a big part of being a musician because if you get complacent, the music suffers. If you keep striving to get better and better, you’re just gonna get better.
We’re very relentless and we’re not very good at quitting. So I don’t think we’ll be stopping anytime soon. That’s one thing we always have. We were always really committed even when we were terrible. It’s nice to be better and still be committed.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Story by Olivia Khiel
Photo courtesy of Lenox Hills